Seen from many capitals of the “old” Europe, the “Anglo-Saxon” war on Iraq, as the French state-run press called it, was a war of conquest. We were neocolonialists, bent on imposing handmaiden regimes. At the United Nations, America was “bullying” Europe and exerting “hegemony,” while France was merely “staying true to its principles” in seeking equal power in a multipolar world.
Fanciful conspiracy theories were brandished by otherwise reputable people. In one of the most scurrilous, the Washington, D.C., correspondent of the French daily Le Monde argued that administration neocons were actually secret Israeli citizens and were pushing the administration to do Israel’s bidding.
In another, spread across the Internet in Britain and Germany, the United States fought the war not for oil but to keep OPEC from switching to the euro as the world’s oil currency.
Clearly, no nation in the old Europe displayed greater official hostility toward America than France. If you were in France, as I was during the first two weeks of the war, you heard about a very different reality than what Americans heard and watched and read about—even with our mainly left-wing press.
Basra, Iraq’s largest city in the south, was called the “martyred city”—not because Saddam had murdered so many of its Shiite inhabitants but because U.S. and British troops had laid a careful siege to minimize the suffering of civilians.
By the end of the first week of the war, French media pundits had concluded that the Anglo-American “aggressors” were mired in a “quagmire.” Civilians were being massacred by trigger-happy U.S. troops, who were guilty of “war crimes.” Anti-war protests around the world showed how “isolated” was America, while protestors in America itself were calling for “regime change”—in the United States, not Iraq.
The average Frenchman listening to state-run France Inter radio or France 2 television during the first week of the war in Iraq saw the United States spiraling toward a humiliating defeat and George W. Bush, the “cowboy” president, headed for ignominy, if not impeachment. In tones that mixed elation and awe, newspeople and pundits began speculating on how the Middle East would look the day after the United States lost the war against Saddam. Wouldn’t this dramatic display of U.S. vulnerability encourage other nations and terrorist groups to challenge U.S. military might?
Most striking in the French coverage was the total absence of any criticism of government policy or of President Jacques Chirac. This is a president who squeaked past voters in the first round of the April 2002 elections with just over 18 percent of the vote, neck and neck with neofascist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. In normal times, the opposition Socialist Party would have been all over Chirac and France’s lively opinion journals would have skewered his policies from all sides.
French war coverage was not merely one-sided: It was viciously inaccurate, skewed, and openly anti-American. One example of the kind of hate journalism that became prevalent was a pop culture radio show that aired just two days before the war began. The disk jockey played a pastiche of speeches by President Bush—in the president’s own voice—assembled to convey precisely the opposite of their original meaning. The United States, Bush said, “is about to launch attacks against Great Britain and 40 other countries. We are attacking freedom. The name of today’s operation is called Enduring Fear. The people of Iraq will suffer.” As the president spoke, a driving chant in the background of Allah O Akbar (God is Great!) gradually overpowered his words. You might have thought that this crude attempt at arousing anti-American hate was the product of one of the many Arab-owned radio stations in France, but it wasn’t. It aired on French state-run radio, nationwide. It was an outrageous appeal to France’s huge Muslim population to identify Americans as the enemies of God.
My favorite was a quote from a freelance “military analyst” who ranted about punch-drunk 20-year-old U.S. soldier-cowboys who were shooting civilians at will. “They face no sanction when a soldier kills civilians,” he said. “They even shoot cows!” That was on the front page of the gray lady of French journalism, the Paris daily Le Monde.
Given this climate, it came as no surprise when a French public opinion survey came out at the end of March showing that 25 percent of those polled said they hoped Saddam Hussein would win the war.
Now the even more scandalous underside of what can only be called French treachery is starting to come out.
The London Sunday Times reported in late April that the French Foreign Ministry was actively providing the Iraqi government with blow-by-blow accounts of closed sessions of the Security Council, as well as private communications with the United States and British governments and intelligence gathered by the French on coalition war plans. The Washington Times subsequently reported that French diplomats had given officials fleeing from Saddam’s regime European Union passports in Damascus, allowing them to escape capture and to roam Europe at will. The French Foreign Ministry angrily denounced these stories as “disinformation” and on May 15 had Ambassador Jean-David Levitte fax an indignant two-page letter of blanket denial to news editors in Washington and around the country.
But for some reason, the French denials sounded hollow.
Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz revealed on May 24 that a U.S. military intelligence team in Iraq had discovered a dozen fresh French passports and believed that “other French passports from the same batch were used by Iraqis to flee the country.” The United States was “still investigating whether the passports were provided covertly by the French government, or were stolen or forged by Saddam Hussein’s regime,” Gertz wrote.
If confirmed, these are not the actions of an ally or even a friend but of a hostile power.
The United States didn’t need these latest alleged outrages as an excuse to exclude France from post-war reconstruction in Iraq. The close political and economic relationship between the French government and the regime of Saddam Hussein provided all the justification the Bush administration required.
And yet today, the French are trying to come in through the back door by insisting on the return of the United Nations weapons inspectors and some form of U.N. government to post-war Iraq. The Bush administration—rightfully, in my view—has rejected their efforts.
The French argue today, as does much of the liberal media in the United States, that the Iraqis lack the political maturity that self-governance requires and are simply not ready for representative democracy. Looters have taken over entire cities, vying for power with former Baath Party fighters and Iranian-backed clerics. By allowing the Iraqis to run their own affairs, the French argue that we could be ushering in a second Baathist regime or, worse, an Iranian-controlled Islamic Republic.
What the French would like is to establish an international bureaucracy, similar to the one that took over Kosovo after the demise of the Milosevic regime in Serbia. These administrators would cut cozy deals with suppliers, allowing the French to gain a foothold in the reconstruction of Iraq that would otherwise be forbidden them.
For beneath the high-sounding arguments lurks a far more sordid reality. The French—and, indeed, most of the Europeans—prefer dealing with autocrats or easily corruptible international bureaucrats, rather than with free peoples and representative governments. Representative democracy is messy. There are multiple sources of authority. They are sometimes unpredictable. King and tyrants are people who will reliably award contracts and kickbacks, whereas a free Iraqi government might not.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld alluded to these critics in an address to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on May 27. The problems in any transition from tyranny to a free and civil society are very real, he noted. They include looting, crime, mobs storming government buildings, the breakdown of government institutions, rampant inflation caused by the lack of a stable currency, and supporters of the former regime roaming the streets and countryside.
“If these problems sound familiar,” Rumsfeld said, “they should: they are historians’ descriptions of the conditions here in America in 1783—in the period after our nation’s war for independence. Those early years of our young republic were characterized by chaos and confusion. There was crime and looting and a lack of an organized police force. The issue of competing paper currencies by the various states led to uncontrolled inflation and popular discontent. There were uprisings such as Shay’s Rebellion, with mobs attacking courthouses and government buildings. . . . Our first effort at a governing charter—the Articles of Confederation—failed miserably, and it took eight years of contentious debate before we finally adopted our Constitution and inaugurated our first president.”
Ironically, for many of the same reasons that compel the French to prefer dictators, the CIA and the Near East bureau of the State Department have been undermining the emergence of representative government in post-war Iraq by bad-mouthing the only group that could possibly imprint Western values onto Iraqi society, the Iraqi National Congress. In this effort they have been joined by the foreign news editors of the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, though not their editorial pages.
The Iraqi National Congress is an umbrella organization, more than a political party. It includes tribal Kurds from the north, Iranian-backed Shiites from the south, and anti-Saddam Sunnis from Iraq’s center. From 1992 until August 1996, when it was brutally betrayed by the CIA and the Clinton administration, the INC held two reasonably fair elections in northern Iraq that led to regional self-governance for the first time in Iraq’s recent history. Despite this track record, the INC is constantly referred to by the State Department and by their media surrogates as “Iraqi exiles.” The term is not meant as a compliment.
The INC’s acknowledged leader, Ahmad Chalabi, is a mathematician with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago who comes from a prominent Shiite family of bankers and pre-Baathist government ministers. Chalabi’s only claim to fame is his extraordinary talent for organization and his ability to convince competing political groups that their best interest is served not by going it alone—as they have tended to do without him—but by banding together in a united, federal Iraq.
And yet, for years both the Near East bureau at State and the CIA have waged a covert (and at times open) war against Chalabi, spreading personal smears, defaming his character, and actively subverting the will of the United States Congress, which voted in October 1998 to authorize $92 million to train and equip an Iraqi liberation army that would have fallen under the umbrella of the INC.
Until the liberation of Iraq in April, those smears were aimed at convincing the president, Congress, and the American public that the United States should stage a military coup against Saddam using dissident Baath Party officers. (Several coup plots hatched by CIA director George Tenet and his predecessor, John Deutsch, failed ignominiously and led to the slaughter of hundreds of Iraqis who believed the United States was powerful enough to save them from their betrayers and from Saddam.) Since the liberation, the smears have aimed at convincing the U.S. and British occupation authorities to bypass the INC in establishing local governing councils, local police, and other institutions, relying instead on former Baath Party members.
The result of bypassing the INC has been predictable. In Sadr City, the Shiite slums outside Baghdad, Muslim clerics have organized their own militias to patrol the streets and impose law and order. In Baghdad and Basra, former Baathists appointed by the occupation authority, without consulting with the INC, have led to popular discontent that eventually forced the U.S. authority to replace their own appointees. During the hunt for Saddam, the U.S. military belatedly deployed some 700 INC troops to the front lines to serve as translators and to help interrogate prisoners for clues of the whereabouts of top regime officials. A larger force, had it been trained and equipped as called for by the Iraq Liberation Act, could have played a central role in establishing law and order after the liberation and ensured that key weapons scientists were located and interviewed.
Despite all the impediments thrown in its way, the INC has supplied most of the actionable intelligence that has led U.S. military intelligence teams to caches of hidden gold, cash, and Saddam’s forbidden weapons. The INC has located and helped arrest former Iraqi weapons scientists. It found the mobile biological weapons plants that the CIA announced on May 28 were virtually identical to the intelligence Secretary of State Colin Powell had presented to the U.N. Security Council in February. A CIA White Paper concluded that the mobile plants are “the strongest evidence to date that Iraq was hiding a biological-warfare program,” a key U.S. claim before the war.
The State Department and CIA efforts to sideline Chalabi are not about people but principles. And they appear to be directly at odds with the vision articulated by the president and by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld of a free, self-governing Iraq, with representative democratic institutions.
During a recent trip to Washington, D.C., a top INC theorist, Kanan Makiya, pleaded with the administration to take stronger measures to enforce law and order. He also placed the blame for the post-war chaos in Iraq squarely on the shoulders of the State Department, which “wouldn’t allow the unified Iraqi command that emerged from the [pre-war] conferences in London and Salahhudin to move into Iraq.” Makiya has been a relentless opponent of Saddam Hussein for decades; he published his first exposé of Saddam’s brutal system, Republic of Fear, under a pseudonym.
“There are two theories on how to bring democracy and build a new order in Iraq,” Makiya told reporters on April 23. “One says, let’s do the process first. Make sure everyone is represented. Let a hundred flowers bloom. Let them form popular councils, their local militias, let them set up their new police forces with different uniforms. To my mind, this is not democracy, but a recipe for chaos. You don’t have democracy merely because the tyrant is gone. You have a people waking up from a deep dark nightmare and horrendous experiences, coming out into the light of day and quite naturally not knowing quite how to behave.”
And yet this appears to be the State Department’s current course and the course that the Eurocrats would impose were the Bush administration short-sighted enough to allow them into Iraq. Don’t rely on pro-American “exiles,” they argue, despite their proven track record. Instead, empower radical pro-Iranian clerics, former Baath Party members, and the bagload of pretenders who lay claim to political legitimacy each day in Iraq’s cities, towns, and villages. The irony would have appealed to V. I. Lenin: As the situation becomes intolerable, the Iraqi people and the international community will be happy when a new dictator emerges from the ruins Saddam left behind. Perhaps such an outcome is precisely what the State Department wants.
The other theory is to establish law and order first, Makiya said, through an interim Iraqi authority. “We need to create the structures of representative democracy. Democracy is about institutions, law and order. What we lack is leadership, not a rainbow coalition.”
As the liberators of Iraq and the Iraqi people, the United States and Great Britain have responsibilities. Foremost among them is to make the peace succeed and to help Iraqis build a new form of representative government. But to do so, we must stay the course charted by the president and empower the leadership council of the Iraqi Interim Authority as it restores order, restores confidence, and prepares the way for the creation of new representative institutions in Iraq.
As Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld told the Council on Foreign Relations, the success of this experiment in democracy in Iraq could set the fires of democracy burning in the hearts of peoples all across the region.
The United States stands on the edge of a new era. We have the opportunity of shaping the political makeup of the entire Middle East in ways never before possible or even thinkable.
But we also face a choice. We can return to dictators as usual. That would appear to be the way of the State Department and CIA bureaucrats—and of the French and many European governments.
Or we can help the Iraqi people to heed their better instincts and to create a new system that draws on their own cultural context and originality, a system that guarantees the freedom of individuals, promotes the tolerance of differences, and establishes justice through the rule of law.